The responses from governments around the country – and they deserve much credit – was lightning fast. Telehealth consultations were extended for psychiatrists and allowed for the first time for psychologists, a game changer for patients allowing counselling to continue almost seamlessly. Organisations such as Lifeline received significantly increased funds to maintain and increase services.

The conversation about mental health – that it is alright not to be alright, it’s OK not be to OK – resounded like never before. Not just to specific demographics, but to all Australians – and all at once. The message that no-one needed to suffer in silence and that help was available was heard and heeded.

Further, although often misunderstood, the solution to better mental health does not come only from health budget and policy. JobKeeper gave millions certainty of income. Seven hundred and fifty rough sleepers were housed in NSW. Welfare payments increased. Individual’s superannuation funds were opened up for those under financial pressure. Solvency laws were suspended.

The first COVID-19 suicide statistics were clear and consistent. During September and October the NSW, Queensland and Victorian coroners released their year-on-year numbers to show there had been no increase in suicides – in effect no COVID-19 suicide event. But the most remarkable statistic was yet to come.

In the week before Christmas, the NSW Mental Health Minister Bronnie Taylor released figures using real time data from the NSW government’s new suicide monitoring system showing suicides had fallen by 5 per cent during 2020.

This is a seismic event in suicide reduction. First, after increases in suicides in four of the past five years, this is the first serious reduction. Second, whilst these numbers are only for NSW it is reasonable to expect a downward trend across the nation, although the Victorian numbers may be tempered by a long, strict lockdown and curfew. Last, suicides reduced during a national event of significant, and in many cases extreme, stressful life-changing proportions. It is possible to say that, unlike natural disasters that effect certain geographic areas, or illnesses predominate in age or gender, no Australian was left untouched by the pandemic. This makes these numbers even more remarkable.

The take out is that during a worldwide pandemic, the likes of which no-one alive has experienced, we asked Australians to put their hands up and reach out for mental health support. They got in touch in some cases for the first time ever, in numbers never seen before and in many cases stopped short of suicide.

There are warning signs within the numbers. Mid-aged suicide (35-54 years) is down significantly. But youth suicide is unchanged. Of alarm is the increase in suicides in Australians over 65, a pattern noted in Hong Kong during the SARS pandemic.

There will be no vaccine for mental illness in 2021. But the dark story of 2020 has been punctured in what can be made a watershed for suicide in Australia. A turning point in our attitudes to asking for help and in the resources and policies needed to save more lives.

John Brogden is the Chairman of Lifeline Australia and a former NSW Liberal Leader.

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